There's no such thing as "not racist"
Image Source: Safehouse Progressive Alliance for Nonviolence (2005). Adapted: Ellen Tuzzolo (2016); Mary Julia Cooksey Cordero (@jewelspewels) (2019); The Conscious Kid (2020)
This is an essay that has been forming in my brain over the past several weeks. It started with the revelations of Ahmaud Arbery’s murder and then the heartbreaking case of Breonna Taylor. Then came Amy Cooper’s weaponization of her whiteness against Christian Cooper in Central Park, followed closely by George Floyd’s murder on a Minneapolis sidewalk. All of these moments, all of these losses are happening against the backdrop of a global pandemic that is exacerbating and highlighting disproportionate lack of access to care, resources, and the luxury to stay home / work from home. It’s so much. Too much. People are feeling traumatized. Our capacity to act, even in protest, is curtailed by fear of coronavirus and of violent actions by police forces around the nation.
As I do in many moments like this, I’m looking for the ways I can gain insight, do the work of rooting out white supremacy within. When I feel impotent to create change in the world, I often turn inward, and seek to create change in myself.
In this moment, I’m thinking a lot about the knee-jerk reaction among many white folks to insist that we are “not racist.” Sometime in the past couple of weeks, there was a post in my Facebook feed that grabbed my attention. It was a screenshot from inside the “Justice for the McMichaels” (Ahmaud Arbery’s murderers) Facebook page. A white woman (her name really is Becky!) had posted “If you are white and pure then I love you. This page is for supporters. The guy got what was coming to him, and the truth hurts. I support my brothers and hope they get out soon. And no, I’m not racist.”
And then a few days (weeks? Time feels so long in quarantine) later, Amy Cooper weaponized her Whiteness when she threatened Christian Cooper with calling 911 and telling them an “African American man is threatening me.” Amy Cooper was in the throes of the shame and rage of white fragility that a black man had dared ask her to follow the rules. She behaved badly, and is paying the consequences for it. She, too, in her public apology to Christian Cooper made sure to let us all know, “I am not a racist.”
What is it that allows these women to believe that they are not racist despite saying and doing blatantly racist things? I believe it is a fundamental misunderstanding of the word racist. As a society, we have a warped definition of racist. We have been taught racist is an identity. It’s a person who hates black people. Racists are KKK members and skinheads and Nazis. We look at ourselves and know we do not hate others, know we would not take violent action against another person because of their race, and we conclude we cannot be racists.
But we’ve got the definition all wrong. When Amy Cooper (or one of the many white women who want to distance themselves from her) says “I am not a racist,” she is denying an identity. I believe many if not all of us do this with identities we feel we do not want or do not deserve. It’s easy to see it with less emotionally-charged identities. For instance, have you heard or maybe said something like “I like to run, but I’m not a runner,” or “I dabble with paints a bit, but I’m not an artist,” or with a more negative identity, “sure I enjoy a drink to help me unwind, but I’m not an alcoholic.”
This is a natural sort of behavior. We are constantly writing and revising our self-identities, and we do so by comparing ourselves to others. I work out at least twice a week, but I don’t think of myself as an athlete. This is especially true when I compare my behavior with that of my triathlete neighbors, whose constant training exceeds my workouts in both time and intensity. But exercise is an activity. It’s not an identity. The fact that my exercise has less time and intensity than that of my neighbors doesn’t make it less exercise.
Racism works in similar ways. Racism that is expressed in “polite” and non-violent ways is still racism. We compare our own quiet preferences to the behavior of violent White Nationalists and we say, “well, that’s not me. I don’t hate anyone. I’m not racist.” The subtext of the statement is “I’m not a bad person.” Here’s the thing: racist does not equal “bad person.” Racist describes an idea, policy, or concept that asserts one racial group is inherently better or worse than another racial group. Racist is a what, not a who. Amy Cooper’s actions that day in the park were racist, but we must remember Amy Cooper is also capable of antiracist actions. The reverse is also true. All of the white women posting “not all white women” in their efforts to distance themselves from Amy Cooper, they--we--are capable of racist actions. To pretend otherwise is to miss an essential stepping stone on our journey toward an antiracist reality.
We must stop saying “I am not a racist.” It’s not true. In fact it’s a nonsensical statement. There’s no such thing as “not racist.” Racism is so baked in to everything in the US, that if we’re not actively working to thwart it, we will perpetuate it. In my friend April N. Baskin’s useful metaphor, racism is in our “factory settings.” When we deny those factory settings by claiming “I am not a racist,” we only betray the fact we’ve done little to examine the impact of racism--either in ourselves or in the world. If we, as a society, are going to root out the scourge of racism, we have to learn how to talk about it in ourselves. If we condemn George Floyd’s murder, and in the same sentence question the methods of those protesting his murder, we must ask ourselves hard questions about what really matters to us, and why.
Ibram X. Kendi points out the heartbeat of racism is denial, and the heartbeat of antiracism is confession. That confession is not easy. Becoming antiracist starts with unlearning racism, which cannot happen until we recognize it in ourselves. Friends, it’s there. Not because we are bad people, but because in America, racism is baked in.
To read other times I've written on this idea explicitly see here and here. To read more about how racism works in our society, read Ibram X. Kendi's How to Be an Antiracist and Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. If you are buying the books, please consider buying them from an independent bookseller. Most are still selling online in the quarantine.